‘Preserve it, perpetuate it, polish it up’: Students learn traditional teachings in college setting
Professor Avery Denny says for those Navajo students who are longing to learn more about their language and culture, Diné College is the perfect place.
“This is where you can learn,” he said. “Learn the language, learn where you come from, learn your clans. You can build on your potential.”
For over 30 years, Denny has taught a variety of Navajo history, culture and spirituality courses including holistic healing, oral history and philosophy, ceremonial arts and ethics, singing, traditional medicine and herbology.
As a professor of Diné studies at the college, Denny embraces Sa’ah Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhóón, the traditional living system that keeps life in balance and harmony with the natural world through concepts encompassed within the four directions, four seasons, four times of day, four elements (air, light/fire, water, earth/pollen), and the process of Nitsáhákees (Thinking), Nahat’á (Planning), Iiná (Living) and Siihasin (Assuring).
Denny says that many students who come to his classes are craving the traditional teachings because they were never taught at home.
“They are like, ‘How come nobody told me about this?’” said Denny.
Some students say they were raised differently or were forbidden to listen to the teachings, he says.
A visit to one of Denny’s holistic healing classes, where students listen intently and take notes, reveals Denny as teacher and storyteller, whose presentation is infused with nuggets of wit and wisdom. It is a relaxed environment where students say they feel comfortable asking questions.
“I took this course because as a Navajo woman, I want to learn more about our culture as well as the language,” said student Breanna Yazzie from Ganado, Arizona.
In just one class, Denny’s students are taught the importance of learning the divine laws of the Holy People, to respect the natural order of life and the six sacred mountains (Sisnaajiní, Tsoodził, Dook’o’oosłiid, Dibé Nitsaa, Dziłná’oodiłii, Ch’óol’í’í), the importance of medicinal plants, respecting the ceremonies, and living a healthy lifestyle.
“Holistic healing helps us understand where we come from, where we are today, and where we are going,” says Denny.
Student Pernall Perry from Tsaile, Arizona, said his family won’t share Diné history and stories. His Christian grandmother says she doesn’t “believe in that stuff anymore,” he says.
Pernall said for him it’s a privilege being in Denny’s class and being able to learn everything he wasn’t able to learn at home.
“Part of what I’m learning is already incorporated into our way of living a long time ago,” he said.
“We need to heal ourselves from within,” said Denny.
He stressed the importance of singing and prayer and attending to the spiritual parts of life.
“I’m taking this class because I want to learn more about ceremonies,” said student Arcada Harrison from Rock Point, Arizona, who shared that her great-grandpa was a medicine man.
“I didn’t talk to him much because I didn’t speak much Navajo,” said Harrison. “I always wanted to ask him questions but I didn’t get to see him often because he was always out and about. I’m really happy that there’s a man here who’s willing to teach us the ways of ceremonies and how to heal ourselves.”
Student Kiyanna Honani from Teesto, Arizona, said she plans go into indigenous psychology and put the knowledge she learns in Denny’s class toward addressing issues such as trauma, substance abuse, and mental illness.
“I think that Western medicine and Western psychology can only take us so far,” said Honani. “I believe that we as Native people have a different way of healing ourselves. It comes from our cultural knowledge, our stories, our songs, and our prayers.”
Denny said it’s important to keep the reception of the seven senses –sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch, dreaming and intuition – “clear and strong.”
“We need to keep our minds, bodies, spirit, and soul clean and pure to have peace and harmony, and balance,” said Denny.
This is integral to being able to see the truth as it is with a sense of compassion, he added.
Denny emphasized the importance of staying in tune with nature and being aware of your surroundings to keep your thinking strong and to protect from evil, harm and danger.
Student RaeChel Claw from Kayenta, Arizona, spoke to the issues of child and elder neglect, domestic abuse and sexual assault on the reservation.
She believes, as a psychology student, the knowledge gained in Denny’s class will aid her in understanding the people she will be helping, who come from a variety of different backgrounds.
“You have to take all of that into consideration in order to help the person in front of you,” she said. “If you’re traditional, you have the songs and prayers to lead you and to guide you back on the right path.”
Student Shinaya Todacheenie from Cornfields, Arizona, says that Denny’s class has been a real “eye-opener” for her.
“All the teachings that he’s given us will benefit me as an individual and in my fields of work in terms of how to understand both perspectives of traditional and Western medicine,” said Todacheenie.
Dwell on positive
Ultimately, Diné holistic teaching helps us to have reverence and to be passionate, said Denny.
He stressed the importance of maintaining a positive spiritual outlook.
“We know that we can achieve great things with our prayers and our strength,” said Denny.
He said it’s important to express caring and compassion toward people and to be kind.
He says getting angry rarely helps anything either and recommends focusing on meditation and prayer instead.
It is also important to forgive one another, have love for one another, and to apologize if you hurt someone, he said.
“Even if you were wrong, you have to admit that you were wrong,” he said.
Denny highlighted the importance of kinship and community.
“With K’é there’s healing,” he said. “With K’é people come together.”
He described that in the old days there were no options to go to a clinic if you were sick or run to the drug store for prescriptions.
“Back then they only used traditional medicine and relied on their songs and prayers,” he said.
Student Roxanne Harvey from Tsaile said she chose to take Denny’s holistic healing class because “It’s part of who we are.”
“I am fond of our culture, our way of belief and healing ourselves through different ceremonies,” said Harvey. “These days, we have a variety of medicine men who are not willing to share their knowledge. Avery is here and he’s offering this to students. I find it very important for us to know.”
Denny stressed the importance of keeping the Diné faith, beliefs, values and education strong, and being content.
“Enjoy your life,” he said. “You don’t need to get old fast.”
Student Cindy Roanhorse from Oak Springs, Arizona, said she’s grateful to teachers like Denny who share their knowledge, which she considers a precious gift.
“What I want to do for my people is help them understand that their life is important, and also apply the Sa’ah Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhóón and instill in them that they are valuable and have a good future before them,” said Roanhorse.
Denny encourages everyone to help keep the Diné teachings and way of life “intact and unbroken” so that they can be passed on.
“Preserve it, perpetuate it, enhance it and polish it up for generations to come,” he said.